Spencer Reid sat in the back of the ambulance, wondering at the incongruity of transporting the wounded from an emergency room to stationary ambulances outside.
She didn't want to think of anything else. Not the heavy weight of the small gun in her hand, not the aches and pains in her body, not the words Hotch had said to her in the emergency room. Definitely not shooting a man in the head.
So she sat, and she thought about ambulances.
Her carefully crafted plan fell apart a few minutes when Aaron Hotcher stepped into view. "How are you doing?" he asked carefully, hands in his pockets and trying his best to appear unthreatening.
Spencer tried to smile, winced at the sudden pain, and settled on a shrug. "My jaw's not broken, and other than some bruises, I should be fine," she said, voice low. Her throat hurt from where Hotch had grabbed at her, screaming at her to stop talking, for once in your life stop talking, while Phillip Dowd watched and laughed.
She'd known at the time that it was an act. Really, she had.
"Good." Aaron looked down, away, then back at Spencer. "You should take a few personal days when we get back to DC."
"Hotch, I'm fine," Spencer repeated. A warm breeze picked up, blowing her hair loose around her face. But her scalp hurt too much from when Aaron had grabbed a handful of her hair to slam her against a cabinet, for her to even consider pulling it back into her customary ponytail. "And it'll be easier coming into the office instead of hiding at home looking like I walked into a few doors."
This time, Aaron didn't look away. "Spencer, I--"
Oh god, the last thing Spencer could deal with right now was Hotch's guilt. "I knew what your plan was the moment you moved the hostages out of my line of fire," she interrupted him. "And the only way I could get the gun out of your ankle hostler was if I was on the ground and Dowd was distracted. I get it."
Hotch cleared his throat. "I wasn't sure you would have understood what I was doing," he said after a moment.
"The only way to distract a hyper-vigilant paranoid is to reinforce his fantasies," Spencer recited. "You made him think I was not a threat by belittling me and casting me in the role of female subordinate in historic workplace gender roles." She shifted position on the back of the ambulance, hunching in on herself in spite of the warm Illinois night breeze. Her ribs were starting to hurt. "Although I think we can leave the part where you said I was 'better in bed than in the field' out of the report."
"Good idea." He hesitated, still exuding guilt and something else Spencer didn't want to unpack at that particular moment. "Spencer..."
"Aaron." This time she met and matched his gaze.
After a minute, Aaron pulled his hands out of his pockets, and his posture relaxed slightly. "Nice shot, by the way."
Spencer couldn't help smiling at that. "I was aiming for his leg," she quipped, and was pleased when Aaron smiled back. She held out the small gun, safety on, barrel down. "Here."
"No, you keep it," Aaron said. "As far as I'm concerned, you passed your qualifications." He took a step back. "I'm going to go check in with SWAT. I'll see you back on the jet."
And with that, he melted into the night.
Spencer sighed, tucking the small gun into the back of her waistband, and went back to thinking about ambulances.
After a few more minutes, Derek Morgan appeared by her side. "Hey."
"Hey," Spencer said back, because she'd been working with Derek for years now and she was finally starting to understand his speech patterns.
"I brought you a birthday present," he said, and held out an icepack.
"Have I ever told you that you're my favorite FBI agent?" Spencer asked, reaching for the icepack with both hands. The cold against her jaw was on the verge of pain and so amazing that Spencer had to close her eyes.
The ambulance swayed slightly as Derek dropped onto the bumper beside Spencer. "You did good today, kid."
"Don't call me kid," Spencer said automatically, voice muffled from behind the icepack.
"I could call you Pen--"
"Careful, Morgan," Spencer ground out. "I've already killed one man today."
She'd meant it to be teasing, like the light-hearted banter the rest of the team used after they shot someone in the field, but the words fell like bricks into the quiet night.
"You did what you had to do," Derek said quietly after a moment, putting his hand on Spencer's shoulder. "There wasn't anything else you could have done."
"You saved a lot of lives today."
"I know!" Spencer lowered the ice pack. "It's just... I don't know what I'm supposed to feel."
The look Derek leveled at her was a far cry from the concerned and patronizing gaze he'd had for her a few days before, after she failed her sidearm qualification. "You'll figure it out. We all had to, eventually."
Spencer sighed, and lifted the ice pack once more. "They really didn't include this part of things at the Academy."
Derek smiled wryly. "No, that's part of field training." He stood. "By the way, I want to warn you."
"About what?" Spencer demanded.
"To save room for cookies. Garcia's threatening to bake you a get-well basket the size of a small car."
"She can get in line," came a familiar voice. JJ, as impeccably poised as ever, sat down next to Spencer. "Move over, I brought you coffee."
"Whatever happened to 'I'm the Communications Coordinator, get your own damn coffee'?" Derek teased as Spencer reached for the cup.
"When you get disarmed, knocked down, tied up, and still manage to bring down the unsub without any residual casualties, then I'll bring you coffee," JJ retorted. "Careful, Spence, it's hot."
Her bruised throat didn't thank her for it, but the familiar smell of bad hospital coffee helped to centre Spencer as nothing else had.
"We head out in a few hours," JJ was telling Derek. "Spencer needs to talk to the homicide detectives about the shooting, but everything's on the ER's surveillance cameras and we can finish the reports back home."
"What are they going to ask?" Spencer looked up from her coffee. She had known, in theory, that since she had killed a man in the line of duty, she was required to submit to a review before she would be allowed back in the field. But it hadn't really clicked until she heard JJ's words.
Derek and JJ exchanged a look. "Don't worry about it, kid," Derek said. "It's just routine. Tell them the truth."
JJ leaned against Spencer's arm. "And take the ice pack, it doesn't hurt to look pathetic."
Spencer squashed a sudden wave of panic. Tell the truth. Look pathetic. Those were two areas where she was a champion.
Det. Clavin came over then. "Dr. Reid," she began apologetically, but Spencer was already getting to her feet. Slowly.
"Back to the station?" Spencer asked, trying to aim for nonchalance, but her words came out a bit high-pitched.
JJ stood as well, positioning herself slightly in front of Spencer. "I'll drive," she said, getting a nod of approval from the detective. "Come on, Spence, I need some AC."
As they walked towards the SUV, Spencer saw Hotch and Gideon talking to the SWAT chief. As she passed, Hotch looked her way, his eyes dark and inscrutable.
Spencer had learned a great many things that day. She had learned what it felt like to pull a trigger and kill a man.
She'd learned how easy it was to separate shouted insults and physical abuse from the cold, clinical target of distracting an unsub to his death.
Most of all, she'd learned how quickly Hotch had been able to pull together insults about a younger woman on his team, to inflict a controlled, maximum amount of violence under the guide of 'correcting her behavior'.
And perhaps that was the most interesting lesson of all.